As you've probably heard, the US-led Coalition of the Willing to Be Seen Putting the Hurt on the Islamic State just made an overnight delivery of live ordinance to Islamic State targets throughout Syria, and they really blew the heck out of some stuff. Meanwhile, the White House and Pentagon have taken the field in the battle for public opinion armed with briefings, statements, videos, pictures, calls, and other weapons of mass communication.
The bombing in Syria, along with the flurry of messaging and chatter surrounding it, have marked a new phase in the coverage of things blowing up in and around the Middle East.
Now seems as good a time as any to examine talking points we might expect to see in the coming weeks and months. Some of these things may come to pass, and completely unexpected events will no doubt unfold. But if and when these points are discussed, you can consider yourself forewarned and have tools at your disposal to separate hype from facts. Think of this like a vaccine to help build immunity to the bullshit that is sure to accompany the looming media frenzy.
THERE WILL BE DRONES
Yes, the US is using drones. The vast majority of the drones are filling reconnaissance and intelligence roles, but some drones will be armed for strikes. That said, saying a country uses drones in a conflict is like saying they're using GPS. It was once a novel technology, but technology has moved on, and the use of drones is to be expected.
Expect three tiresome talking points on drones. First: The US-led drone strikes will only create more terrorists. Second: Drones are evil killer robots that blah, blah, robot overlords, blah. Third: The US is no better than the Islamic State because drones are immoral.
Bonus especially tiresome talking point: Killing complete strangers using one weapon (drones) is way more dehumanizing than killing complete strangers using a different weapon (guns, artillery, cruise missiles, etc.).
THERE WILL BE COLLATERAL DAMAGE
There are two sides to this. On one hand, there's going to be a screwup. Whether it's caused by mechanical failure, poor intelligence, or plain ol' stupidity, there's going to be a civilian house or wedding party somewhere that takes a Hellfire missile, and this will spark warranted criticism and commentary.
The other side of the coin is that Hamas has recently proven yet again that dead civilians are propaganda gold. An organization like the Islamic State, which decapitates people instead of emailing press releases, probably won't be too squeamish to make like Hamas and try very, very hard to fail to prevent civilian deaths in order to shift public opinion in Iraq and Syria in their favor.
There are many different ways that our local partners might conceivably fall short, providing an opportunity for someone to make a huge deal out of something that was likely inevitable.
Expect three tiresome talking points on collateral damage. First: The US-led airstrikes will only create more terrorists. Second: The US effort is too focused on military action, and not focused enough on addressing root causes. Third: The entire effort to defeat the Islamic State was ill-conceived, and the US should cut and run.
Bonus especially tiresome talking point: Western media references that favorably compare the Islamic State to the Palestinians and their fight against Israel.
THERE WILL BE AMERICAN CASUALTIES
Sadly but inevitably, people will be killed in this conflict. And, sooner or later, one of those fatalities is bound to be a US soldier. The amount of shock, outrage, and dismay you can expect to see is actually hard to predict. It will depend on factors like what politicians are in office, whether it's the result of friendly fire, and whether an especially juicy celebrity meltdown is in progress. But the temptation for the political-media commentariat to score points will be way, way too high to pass up.
Expect three overdone talking points on American casualties. First: The US can never hope to defeat a local insurgency. Second: The US has no strategy/exit strategy and the effort to defeat IS was ill-conceived. Third: The whole war is the fault of Obama/Republicans/Israelis and the US should cut and run.
Bonus especially tiresome talking point: Comparisons to wars in Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan and the use of the word quagmire.
THERE WILL BE MISBEHAVIOR BY LOCAL ALLIES
This is a very broad catch-all category because there are many different ways that our local partners might conceivably fall short, providing an opportunity for someone to make a huge deal out of something that was likely inevitable. It could be a "green on blue" attack (an assassination by a terrorist posing as a friendly), units retreating, the selling or abandoning equipment, or just general incompetence.
With all the factions the US is trying to lump together as the Good Syrians, it could turn into splinter groups switching sides, dropping the fight against the Islamic State to hit Syrian government troops, or infighting. The ramshackle coalition is bound to fall short sooner or later. The big question in this war as in any war, is which side fails less dramatically than their opponent.
Expect many tiresome talking points on misbehavior by local allies, but here are three. First: "These guys are supposed to be vetted as reliable. Why isn't the vetting process always perfect?" Second: "This region is chock full of ancient and complex relationships and animosities and there's no chance any outsider will ever be able to grasp any of it." Third: "We must immediately add/withdraw as many US troops as possible."
Bonus especially tiresome talking point: Almost anything having to do with the Iraq National Guard, the Sunni tribal militias, and/or the Anbar Awakening.
THERE WILL BE INFIGHTING AMONG LOCAL ALLIES
Given enough time, the US (or one of its partners) might end up accidentally (or not so accidentally) blowing up something that belongs to the Syrian government, Iran, or Hezbollah. The political-media complex doesn't seem very comfortable with the fact that we're signing up for a three-way brawl, but pundits haven't really grasped the best way to make a stink about it yet.
Nonetheless, expect a big squawk to be made once a Good Syrian rebel group is attacked by the Syrian government and calls for Coalition air support, or a Hezbollah fighter fires a missile at a Saudi jet, or an Iraqi Sunni ally shoots an Iranian advisor in Iraq. This is all related to the Misbehavior described above, but instead of creating problems within the US, it will spawn problems between the US and another heavily armed faction.
Expect three overdone talking points on infighting among local allies. First: The Middle East is too complex to bear (which is actually true but should not qualify as a story). Second: The US risks entanglement against its will in a regional, age-old conflict. Third: The US should either partner with or declare war on the third side in this conflict (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, or Hezbollah).
Bonus especially tiresome talking point: "You can't win a fight against an idea, much less a religion."
THERE WILL BE DIFFERING VIEWPOINTS
There should be a vigorous domestic debate about the ways, ends, and means surrounding one of the gravest missions a nation can undertake. But the Western debate appears to have been pulled from a single, 50-year-old script that keeps getting passed around.
Stories often focus on the mere fact that a debate exists rather than examining the substance of the debate. Much of the coverage along these lines is subtly (or blatantly) designed to whip up controversy where it doesn't exist, suppress mention of disagreement where there is a dispute, or put words in people's mouths to distort what was actually said. Occasionally, the coverage will be more straightforward and a media outlet will put something in an actual op-ed rather than baking the spin directly into news coverage that purports to be objective.
Expect three overdone talking points on the existence of differing viewpoints. First: Republicans are bloodthirsty warmongers who want to wage war until everyone is dead and Democrats are craven cowards who want to surrender to pure evil until everyone is dead. Second: The military is full of power-mad sociopaths bent on slaughtering millions. Third: The war is just an excuse for the oil/banking/media/pharma/agriculture/defense industry to go blow stuff up for profit.
Bonus especially tiresome talking point: Anything involving the CIA, the Trilateral Commission, or anti-Semitism.
So, where does that leave us? Wars are very difficult and very violent. Things are going to be ugly, sad, and tragic. Things will go wrong regularly.
Unfortunately, discussion about conflict often feeds on the difficulty and violence without actually understanding anything about the nature of the conflict itself. When folks don't have anything to add to the discussion, they add hype. Maybe if people can inoculate themselves against the hype, they'll be able to extract the slivers of real information from the bullshit and make up their own minds.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
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